Monday, August 27

Heirloom Tomato Ketchup

We're brimming with heirloom tomatoes from our farm CSA box, but somehow none of my usual uses for tomatoes have seemed appealing lately. The tomatoes this year have been so good that they mostly beg to be eaten straight - sliced with a bit of sea salt and good olive oil, or layered into a caprese salad with basil and fresh mozzarella. But there are only so many fresh tomatoes we can eat, and I came home tonight to find a couple handsome heirlooms on the verge of decline. It seemed a good night to try and put together a real ketchup.

Commercial ketchup, like commercial mayonnaise, bears little resemblance to the real thing. Raised like everyone else on the supermarket formula consisting mostly of high-fructose corn syrup, tomato paste and celery powder, it never occurred to me that ketchup could be anything more than a fast food side. But a little breakfast joint on our old neighborhood happened to have a fantastic homemade variety, and I've been meaning to make a batch ever since.

This recipe lends itself well to experimentation - all of the spices can be adjusted to taste, and many others would be worth playing with. For a spicier sauce, add a few (or many) dashes of hot sauce. It also turns out a delightful golden orange color if you use a mix of different colored tomatoes.

-- Heirloom Tomato Ketchup

*2 tbs olive oil
*1 medium onion, finely diced
*1 red jalapeño pepper, seeded and diced
*4 cloves garlic
*3 lbs assorted heirloom tomatoes, peeled and seeded
*1/3 cup + 3 tbs apple cider vinegar
*2 tbs dark brown sugar
*1 cup water
*1 tsp cardamom
*1 star anise
*1 tsp celery seed
*1/2 tsp cloves
*1 tsp cinnamon
*2 tsp smoked paprika
*1 tsp chili powder
*2 tsp salt
*freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. In a non-reactive sauce pan, sauté the onion and jalapeño in the olive oil until golden and very soft, about 20 minutes. When the pan starts to dry out, add 1/2 cup of the water. Add the garlic and cook for another minute, then stir in tomatoes, 1/3 cup vinegar, and the sugar.

2. Place the cardamom, star anise, celery seed, and cloves in a spice bag, or tie in a bit of cheesecloth, and add to the tomato mixture. Add the cinnamon, smoked paprika, chili powder and salt and stir well.

3. Cook the ketchup until thick but not completely dry, about 2-3 hours. Adjust seasoning to taste and transfer to a blender. Puree until very smooth. You may need to add the other 1/2 cup water if the ketchup is too thick. Pour in the additional 3 tbs vinegar (or to taste) and pulse to combine. Transfer to sterile jars and refrigerate, or process 15 minutes in a boiling water canner. Homemade ketchup should last about 2 months in the refrigerator.

Yields 2 small jars.

Tuesday, August 21

Strawberry Balsamic Jam

We ate well on our recent visit to south Florida (Key Lime Pie tasting notes and recipe coming soon!), but the trip still left us craving California food. It's not that the food there is bad, but the food here really is fantastic. Even the burrito we shared in the airport terminal when we landed in Oakland tasted amazingly good.

I have been meaning to post this recipe for a while now but kept putting it off. I didn't take pictures when I initially made it, and thereafter was more interested in eating the jam than in photographing it. Also, I wasn't sure how it would go over, but it has turned out to be quite popular, even with my mom who claims to hate balsamic vinegar. The balsamic isn't easy to identify, but it gives the jam a complex, earthy flavor that's addictive.

One of my favorite early summer salads is simply fresh strawberries tossed with balsamic vinegar. Sometimes I use salad greens, but when I want to be really decadent, I go without. I was inspired to try a similar jam weeks ago when I spotted a crate of luscious looking organic strawberries at the farmers market and knew that 1) I had to have them, and 2) I would not be able to use them all right away.

Don't cut down on the sugar, as that's what preserves the fruit and thickens the jam. That said, the one change I might make next time would be to use pectin, as it was a bit sad seeing all those fresh strawberries get cooked away while I waited for the mixture to thicken. You can reduce thickening time by using a wide, shallow pan and cooking the jam in small batches to hasten evaporation.

-- Strawberry Balsamic Jam

*2.2 lbs strawberries, washed, tops removed
*4 3/4 cups sugar
*3 tbsp lemon juice
*4 tbsp balsamic vinegar

1. Place the strawberries and sugar in a non-reactive saucepan. Stir to combine, then cover and stand for a few hours.

2. Add the lemon juice and balsamic vinegar and bring to the boil. Boil for 15 to 20 minutes until setting point is reached.

3. Allow to stand for 10 minutes and pour into sterilised jars. Process 15 minutes in a boiling water canner. For more detailed instructions on canning, download these step by step canning instructions from the National Center for Home Food Preparation.

Thursday, August 16

The Best Green Salsa!

I've finally done it! I've successfully reverse engineered Taqueria El Favorito's (fresh) green salsa, the best salsa I've ever encountered in all my travels. Now let me tell you, I've eaten Mexican food in Mexico, Portugal (please don't even ask), France (same goes for here), Italy (and here), Venezuela, Arizona, New Mexico, and in hundreds of places across California, and I've decided that the best (fresh) green salsa comes right out of my own hometown, Santa Rosa, CA, at Taqueria El Favorito (formerly El Farolito).

I must admit that I've never been to Texas, save the airports, and I've never tried Ninfa's Green Sauce now made famous by the Houston Chronicle and the Homesick Texan who swears it's the best, but I can tell you that the recipe shown below will be much more robust in the garlic and cilantro areas, and it will keep looking fresh longer because it has lime juice which slows down the oxidation process.

Now let me explain why I keep putting (fresh) in front of green salsa. It's because I don't want to step on my brother in law's toes. Andy is already famous for his green salsa, but his is the cooked version, and it's the best damned cooked version I've ever tasted. It was a big hit during the cocktail hour at my recent wedding. Unfortunately he'll only divulge what's in it, not how much of what's in it, is in it. I can only hope that one day he'll come clean and share the secret recipe.

Back to my salsa! Where was I? Oh yes, I just wanted to let you know that my wife Mary loves this salsa so much, that today after finishing off the last of the tortilla chips, she began to eat the salsa on soda crackers. I, on the other hand, went straight for a spoon.

--The Best (Fresh) Green Salsa

*1 pound of 1" size tomatillos, husked, rinsed, and quartered
*1 bunch fresh cilantro (about 2 ounces by weight after trimming the stems), rinsed, and roughly chopped
*2 1/2 limes, squeezed
*9 cloves of garlic
*1 small white onion, chopped
*2 good size green jalapeno peppers (makes a medium spicy salsa), stemmed, and chopped
*2 avocados, sliced
*1 1/2 cups water depending on the viscosity desired
*1/2 tsp. cumin (or to taste)
*2 1/2 tsp. salt (or to taste)
*1/2 tsp. black pepper (or to taste)


1. Combine all ingredients in a food processor or blender, except for the cumin, salt, and black pepper.

2. Blend until a smooth texture is achieved.

3. Add spices and mix thoroughly.

4. Adjust spice levels to your liking.

5. After numbing your taste buds doing too much quality control, insist that your spouse or a good friend keep testing it to see if it tastes like the real McCoy.

6. Continue this until they feel ill.

7. If they come back for more the following day, or later that night, you know you've got the real deal.

8. This recipe yields a little under a quart of salsa. Refrigerate what you don't eat right away.

Monday, August 13

The Coconut Cocktail

My sister Rose has just informed me that my honeymoon is over, and it's time to get back to the grindstone. It's true, I've been slacking on my blogging duties lately, but I've had other things on my mind. Planning a wedding for 125 guests is no easy feat, but in the end it turned out to be the best party I've ever thrown. It wouldn't have been possible though, without all of my dear sister's help and support. Thank you Rose!

Even before this whole wedding thing got out of control, I've been wanting to post about a new drink I've concocted. It's very simple in concept, but amazingly delicious and refreshing in flavor. When I first tasted this drink I couldn't believe the subtle flavors of banana and vanilla that seemingly came out of nowhere. Let me give you a little background about how this drink came to be.

In the past, one of my favorite things about going out to Thai food was always the sweet and spicy Thai iced tea. I just couldn't get enough of the stuff, but when I moved down to Long Beach and started seeing fresh young coconuts offered on the menu, the iced tea moved into second place. Now I go out to Thai food just because I'm craving these coconuts. When you order one, the waiter cuts a square in the top of the chilled nut, and presents it to you with a straw, and a spoon to gouge out the insides once you finish drinking the refreshing juice. According to Wikipedia, the water contained in the young coconut has been successfully used as liquid in intravenous therapy in emergency situations due to its sterility, pH, mineral, and sugar content. In other words, it's the perfect antidote to a hangover in it's ability to rehydrate the human body. This fact led me to the next logical question: why not mix it with alcohol for a hangover-proof drink?

The other day, while a few friends were over and several drinks had already been passed around, I started to feel a little creative. I'd recently purchased a box of six fresh, young coconuts from my local Asian market with the idea of saving money on eating out. I'd chilled two of them in the refrigerator for future use, and suddenly I felt that their time had come. I took out my beautiful Wusthof chefs knife (the heaviest knife I could find) and began to chop at the tops of the nuts with much bravado. I quickly realized that I'd not yet mastered Zen and the Art of Coconut Opening. Please see my once fine piece of cutlery on the right with damaged blade. After a little research and practice I can now say I'm a master. My advice is this: go out and get yourself a cheap cleaver at the Asian market(I paid $5). Put the coconut on a firm, sturdy surface. Take the cleaver in your good hand, wind up, and make four decisive chops on the top of the nut in the shape of a square. With a little practice, and some luck, you too will be able to impress your friends with the art of Coconut Kung Fu.

At last, here is the recipe you've been waiting for:

--The Coconut Cocktail

*One well chilled fresh young coconut with the top removed in a neat square. (If you don't have access to young coconuts at your local Asian market or health food store you can order them by mail from Amazon or RawGuru (organic Hawaiian), but you will pay dearly)
*1 1/2 Ounces Whaler's Original Dark Rum. (Available at Trader Joe's or here)
*1 dash Angostura Bitters
*1 straw

1. Remove or drink enough water from the coconut to accommodate the rum.

2. Pour in the rum and add the bitters.

3. Serve with a straw and add tropical garnishes if you're feeling festive.

4. Enjoy, and don't forget to eat out the young coconut flesh with a spoon when you're finished drinking.

Monday, August 6

Lavender Shortbread and a Wedding

Well, my brother is now married and off for a week-long backpacking honeymoon. I have to admit, I felt a little lonely last night. We've been in constant contact for a month straight, and now that it's all over, I miss everyone. I am attempting to rest up before Andy and I head out to visit his family in Florida on Thursday. At that point the second round of wedding madness will begin, with an engagement party for us and a barrage of questions about date and location sure to follow.

Meanwhile, I am still gathering together the wealth of memories, impressions and ideas from the weekend. I think the last three days passed almost as quickly for me as they did for the bride and groom, but along the way I reconnected with some very old and dear friends. The ceremony itself was wonderful and personal, with friends and family offering readings and music. The reception featured a fantastic live swing band and Will and Mary were out on the dance floor the whole night.

The lavender shortbread was a big hit at the tea party shower. It went great with all of the teas and felt very festive and romantic. I first came across and tested a less traditional recipe that left me with delicate, pale, fine grained cookies that threatened to disintegrate at the first touch. Andy preferred them, but I wanted something a little heartier, so I ended up just folding a heaping teaspoon of lavender into a classic shortbread recipe - with excellent results.

-- Lavender Shortbread

*1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
*1/4 cup rice flour or corn starch
*2/3 cup sugar
*16 tbs (0r 2 sticks) unsalted butter
*1/4 tsp salt
*1 tsp lavender flowers
*1 tbs turbinado sugar

1. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 425 degrees. Line a 9 inch spring-form pan with parchment and set aside.

2. Process the sugar for about 30 seconds in a food processor then add the flours and salt and mix until combined. Cut the butter into 1/2 inch cubes and stir into the flour, then mix for several minutes until the dough is pale yellow and has formed damp crumbs. Stir in lavender flowers.

3. Press the mixture into the pan and sprinkle with turbinado sugar, then place shortbread in the oven. Immediately reduce the temperature to 300 degrees. Bake for 20 minutes.

4. Remove shortbread from oven and score, dividing into 16 pieces. Use a skewer or the tines of a fork to make a decorative pattern on the cookies. Return shortbread to the oven and continue baking for another 40 minutes. Cut the finished cookies into wedges. Wrap well and store for up to a week.

Wednesday, August 1

Orange-Anise Biscotti

This recipe for Orange-Anise Biscotti was adapted from The New Best Recipe. Biscotti are amazingly easy to the make, remarkably healthy, and can last a month or more when made without butter (as in this recipe). They are twice baked - once in loaves, then as cookies - giving them their crispy texture and long life. Unlike most cookies, they actually improve after a few days.

-- Orange-Anise Biscotti
*2 cups all purpose flour
*1 tsp baking powder
*1/4 tsp salt
*1 cup sugar
*2 large eggs
*1/4 tsp vanilla
*1/2 tsp orange extract
*1 tbs anise seeds

1. Preheat the oven to 350. Whisk together the eggs and the sugar until well blended, then add the vanilla, orange extract and anise seeds.

2. Blend dry ingredients together in a small bowl and then fold into the liquids. Mix until just combined. The dough will feel very sticky, but resist the temptation to add more flour.

3. Divide the dough into to equal balls and shape them into logs on a parchment covered baking sheet. They should be about 2 inches wide and 13 inches long.

4. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes, until the edges are browned and the top begins to crack. Let cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then transfer to a cutting board. Using a serrated knife, slice the loaves diagonally into slices about 3/8 of an inch thick. Distribute the cookies on the baking sheet cut side down.

5. Lower the oven temperature to 325 and bake for another 15 minutes until the cookies are crispy throughout. They will continue to harden as they cool.